Literary Theories and Fried Squash

There is only one way to cook fried squash — burn it to a crisp. Anything less and it is mushy, insubstantial and gross. Of course, once you burn it to a crisp, it’s still not worth eating. You might as well scrape the soot out of your fireplace and eat that. Critical literary theories and fried squash share something in common. With both, you have to choose between mealy-mouthed mush or overdone carcinogenic rubbish.

English scholars employ “critical literary theories” to interpret literature because they never learned, or don’t want to remember, how to read. The adjective “critical” in this phrase is supposed to mean “analytical,” like a movie critic who dissects a movie and evaluates the story line, cinematography and performances. When I teach literary analysis to community college students, I tell them that a literary theory is “a question” that you ask a text to answer.

There are lots of theories out there. The most common ones in our universities are marxist, feminist, masculinist (yes, the boys want their day in the spotlight too), queer (their choice to call it that, not mine), eco- or environmentalist, animalist, and so on. Ethnic studies, whether black, hispanic, asian, american indian or what have you often show up as well. There are lots of variations among these approaches, and there are a few more, such as “new historicist,” that we could add to the list.

You can see that the dominant concerns are gender, race, power-politics, and the environment. Now, where do those priorities come from? NPR? The Academy Awards? They seem to be ubiquitous. Thirty or forty years ago the list looked a bit different, with a greater interest in linguistic questions.

I could keep going with what I think is the fascinating history of how literature has been interpreted over the centuries. We could go all the way back to the three- and four-fold methods of the church fathers, or the eschatologically driven interpretations of the Qumran community. But let’s get back to the present.

I said earlier that a theory asks a question of a piece of literature. Marxists ask, “how are power and class inequalities represented in this text?” Feminists ask, “how are women and their ability to exercise power portrayed in this text?” Environmentalists ask, “how is the environment and its use/abuse by people represented in this text?” More important than these questions, though, are the assumptions behind them. If the critic assumes a Marxist or a feminist worldview, the answer to the question she asks will come out Marxist or feminist. You don’t put squash in the frying pan and end up with filet mignon.

What I find so vacuous and banal about contemporary literary theories are two things. First, they are designed for and used in service to a far-left political agenda. The upshot is that traditional western literature is itself the product and instrument of the oppression of the disenfranchised, all in the name of enriching and empowering white guys, and….yaaawwwn….sadly, that’s the best the brilliant scholars in university English departments can do — just regurgitate Chris Matthews and Al Sharpton. Of course, professors use bigger words, but burnt squash is no better than mushy squash.

Second, this type of literary interpretation is activist rather than artistic or intellectual. There is no critical thinking allowed because the assumptions are sacrosanct. By the time the caboose rolls by the engine has already left the station and you are not allowed to question the engineer.

The liability of the contemporary approach is best understood by pointing out a similarity between literary critics and the Apostle Paul.

Wait — what?

How is a progressive literary critic similar to the apostle Paul?

It’s simple. They are both ideological fundamentalists. They both know what is true before they even read the text. Their respective interpretations are confirmations and demonstrations of foregone conclusions. The literary critic and the Apostle Paul do not interpret so much as they proclaim. The assumption is not that there is something new to discover, only that there is a new way to talk about something the interpreter already believes is true. So, for all of its proto-feminist impulses, the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” resolves itself into a perpetuation of the patriarchal status quo. And so it goes.

Contemporary literary theories contain a “you end up where you started” reflex that confines literature and starves it of its inherent transformative power. Now, we could point out that if you start with ribeye, you end up with a pretty good meal. But if you start with squash, you end up with squash, no matter how you cook it. You can’t improve on yuck.

In my next post I will explain my approach to literary interpretation.

Syllabi and Epistemologies

You remember syllabi don’t you? Those handouts you get the first day of class. The very first thing you always look for is “how many papers do I have to write?” and “how long do they have to be?” And, “is the final exam cumulative?” Once those questions are answered you really don’t care about anything else on the syllabus. Well, holidays and other days off are kind of important too.

All this week I have been busy writing syllabi for my fall courses. Of the several required components, I have to include “Course Goals” and “Student Learning Outcomes.” (I always have a visceral response to such pseudo-scientific educational jargon.)

It is self-evident that a teacher must have a purpose in mind when teaching a course. However, you may not realize that many educators routinely revise goals, objectives and desired “learning outcomes.” This essay explores why the annual practice of generating goals and outcomes may not be as benign as it seems.

This practice should actually strike you as a little strange. We’re not talking about adopting a new textbook or assigning a shorter term paper to save time on grading. Goals and outcomes have to do with the essence of what the course is about. They answer the questions of “why am I teaching this course?” and “what do I want students to know that they don’t already know?”

It should seem odd that teachers have to keep revisiting those questions. It would be like a carpenter repeatedly asking himself, “why do people live in houses?” and “what does a house look like anyway?” Seems like knowing those answers should be a prerequisite to calling yourself a carpenter.

Some revisions in syllabi are appropriate: new discoveries are made in science, new historical documents come to light, the instructor lands on a better question to get at the heart of the course.

However, in my experience in the Humanities, the fact that revisions to “goals” and “outcomes” are expected (and sometimes required) is rooted more in the philosophical assumptions of progressive education than in actual advances in knowledge. What do I mean by this?

First, education is no longer about passing on knowledge and wisdom from one generation to the next. It is about “constructing” knowledge — coming up with new truths — and passing those on. Of course, scholars and educational bureaucrats are the experts so they get to construct the knowledge they think students need to learn. An amazing number of students actually accept this premise.

Second, it is assumed that human nature is essentially unstable. Since each class of students represents a new version of humanity, we have to keep changing our goals and outcomes to fit the new breeds. Each generation is treated as an alien species whose language teachers must learn and whose culture teachers must learn to negotiate. The classroom is, as Dewey envisioned, a laboratory in which teachers conduct endless pedagogical experiments. Nothing ever works for very long because the object of the experiment (the student) keeps morphing into something different.

There may also be a bit of an idolization of childhood and adolescence here. After all, does it not seem odd that the default assumption is that instructors accommodate to the “learning styles” and the “modes of thinking” of children and teenagers? Since antiquity, adults have known that “folly is bound up in the heart of a child.” Isn’t the purpose of education to enable children to think like adults rather than require adult instructors to think like their immature students? If we teach to their squirrely brains, when do we actually model for them how to think like an adult? I’m trying to tip over some sacred cows here, I know, but it is some food for thought.

Third, educational priorities by definition mirror the political priorities of progressivism. These priorities include such things as diversity, globalism, global freezing warming change, gender, equality, you get the idea. While some priorities are stock in trade for progressive educators, the hot topics are always in flux. Hence, new issue of the day means new goals and student outcomes. By the way, if I had to guess, I’d say that “animal rights” is going to be a popular issue du jour for the next few years. It is already showing up as a stand-alone course at App State. (In a future blog I want to think out loud about where progressive ethics come from and why so many people accept them as normative without evaluating their philosophical integrity — but that will be another post.)

Having exposed what is often behind the veil of those who endlessly revise their goals and student outcomes, let me add a couple of qualifications.

First, it is not a bad idea, even for a carpenter, occasionally to ask fundamental questions of one’s trade.  This is how ideological breakthroughs often occur. In fact, it was by asking such questions that I realized how philosophically unsatisfying the progressive educational approach is.

Second, as a human being I am prone to err and stray. A periodic evaluation of whether or not I am teaching what my principles require is a healthy practice. However, this sort of self-check assumes, unlike the progressive model, that the goals and objectives of educating the next generation are not riddles that need to be untangled every new school year. Instead, they are established waypoints. It’s the instructor that is prone to get off course, not the course that needs to be re-routed.

So, the lowly syllabus can be a small window through which we can see into the epistemology of the instructor. If your teacher has not changed the syllabus in several years, it may mean he is in a rut. Or it may mean he actually believes that what was true years ago is still true today. That’s just the way truth works.